I loved The Last King (2003), also known as Charles II: The Power and The Passion, when I saw it way back when. It’s one I’ve always meant to rewatch, both because it was entertaining, but also because I know so much more about late 17th century costume now than I did back in the day. It’s got a great cast — Rufus Sewell as Charles II, Rupert Graves as the Duke of Buckingham, Helen McCrory as Barbara Villiers, Shirley Henderson as Catherine of Braganza — and who doesn’t love the story of the merry monarch and all his wimmin?
The costumes were designed by Mike O’Neill (Daniel Deronda, North and South, Elizabeth I with Helen Mirren). Sadly the series is old enough that there’s only a teeny bit of press to be found about it, and very little about the costumes. I’m guessing the budget was small, because there are some costumes that are great and others that leave a lot to be desired … and everything is filmed in close-up, which I always think is a way to avoid showing the costumes and/or the lack of extras!
I’ve been doing an occasional deep dive into the costumes of each episode. This one is long overdue, but I get distracted! Easily! Check out my recap/reviews of episode one and two (no really, it’s been a while!).
The Great Fire of London (1666) has broken out! As really happened, Charles II goes in person to help. Of course, our sets and extras are limited, but it mostly works.
We move to France, where Charles’s mother (deposed English Queen Henrietta Maria) is dying. She’s called her daughter, Henriette, to her side; Henriette is married to Louis XIV’s younger
daughter son. Henrietta Maria dying wish is getting Charles to convert to Catholicism.
Henriette (Anne-Marie Duff) is putting out her own chandelier candles, which, aren’t there servants for that? Louis XIV shows up and encourages her to visit her brother and convince him to convert to Catholicism, in which case the French will send an army and money if needed to support him.
Here’s the real Henriette. As you can see, they did a great job with the hair. You can also see similar sleeves in the second portrait:
Louis XIV is still wearing petticoat breeches, the style that’s now out of date in England. This tracks, as the new jacket/waistcoat/more fitted trousers was an innovation that started in England, then was picked up in France and other countries. I explained this fashion transition in my review of episode 2. I question their making Louis a redhead, but his poncy makeup is great:
The real Louis was all about the dark hair. I also feel like the hair silhouette on Louis is a bit more 1680s-90s than 1660s:
Finally, we introduce My Girl, Nell Gwyn. She’s shown performing on stage in a VERY theatrical costume (as is appropriate) but only in bits and glimpses — this was the best I can do. Nell was known (among several actresses) for playing “breeches parts,” where they cross-dressed as men; it was considered super sexy. So it makes sense from that angle that they are using breeches as part of her outfit, although the rest of it is very feminine.
The real Nell Gwyn was a total babe by period standards, not quite so much by our modern ones:
Charles has been coming to see her perform; he goes backstage and invites her out to dinner, and she charms and disarms him and his men by her casual ways. They shag afterwards in the theater, where Nell appears to have changed into the stripey dress seen in this post’s preview image:
Barbara Villiers has had yet another child, which she tries to tell Charles is his. He points out that they haven’t had sex in forever and refuses to acknowledge the baby. Babs is pissed. She’s still in her mantua look from earlier episodes (see my recap of episode one for more), although her makeup is getting more artificial (I think to show us she’s aging).
Here’s the real Barbara, with one of her and Charles’s sons, a few years earlier:
There’s a big drunken orgy at which Barbara is pissed because Nell has clearly usurped her. Barbara is rewearing her burgundy taffeta dressing gown from earlier episodes.
We never see much of Nell’s outfit; the lace and braid look a little clunky, but it’s fine in motion on screen.
Yet again, LOTS of politics happens, and I care zero about it. Most of it is about Charles’s refusal to persecute Catholics, especially his younger brother (the future James II, the heir to the throne).
Charles (Rufus Sewell) continues to be hot:
Beauty patches came into fashion in this period. I love that this courtier is wearing one across a scar on his nose (you later see him undressed sans patch), which was one of the reasons people wore patches (to cover blemishes; the other was that they were thought to make your skin look whiter by contrast).
Barbara Villiers is pissed that the king isn’t into her and showing him off by being increasingly debauched, so much so that it’s common knowledge and causing real problems. For example, she visits the body of a saint and bites off his penis. Yep.
Nell Gwyn is posing for a real portrait by famous artist Peter Lely. The Duke of Buckingham tries to talk her into shagging him. She’s super charming, telling him she doesn’t care if the king sleeps with other women, she’s loyal to him. She also points out how much the king cares for her (he gives her titles, money, a house, etc.).
She leaves, and Charles bemoans to Buckingham that he’s going to have to deal with Barbara Villiers. He’s wearing a GREAT coat and waistcoat that’s in gorgeous colors and patterns:
Here’s a few clearer shots of the outfit. LOVE the decorative slashes/buttonholes along the hem!
Charles heads to Barbara’s palace rooms and informs her she has to GTFO. She’s sleeping with some young’un, who confesses he’s doing it for the money. Barbara is PISSED and humiliated.
Charles’s purple suit is gorgeous:
The young’un is played by cutie Simon Woods (Pride & Prejudice & Pigs), which has just inspired me to write an MCM about him:
I’ve finally realized that Barbara’s chemise is actually a metallic gold fabric, which really doesn’t read well on film:
Barbara leaves court dressed to the NINES, and Queen Catherine of Braganza is there to watch in a nice callback to an earlier episode where she had to stand by while Barbara paraded around.
Let’s look at this outfit in more detail:
Back in France, Henrietta wants to visit England but her husband, Louis XIV’s younger brother Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, doesn’t want her to. The real-life Philippe was openly bisexual; here he’s SUPER poncy and hanging with one of his lovers. He fights with Henriette and rapes her in front of his lover.
Henriette is wearing stays and a shift; it was hard to screencap her:
Henriette goes to England! Charles has a newish outfit, but poor Queen Catherine of Braganza spends a lot of this episode in the same grey/blue outfit she wore in episode 2:
Here’s Charles’s costume on display:
Henriette is wearing a peach gown, and I like the peek-out faux-chemise down the front.
BUT WAIT. Seeing this image reminds me of this still (as the poster of images to social media, I start to remember particular stills). When the fuck does she wear this outfit? I’m thinking the version of this series that’s on BritBox is the edited-for-the-U.S. one, which means we’re not only missing costumes but SMUT (the U.S. version was edited to be less racy, which, they don’t know us do they). I even went back and skimmed episodes 1 and 2, and nope, it’s not in there.
Henriette is accompanied by one of her French ladies-in-waiting, Louise de Kérouaille, played by Mélanie Thierry (The Princess of Montpensier). She’s much blonder than the real Louise, but once again they’re going for contrast.
Here’s the blondest portrait I can find of Louise; she’s usually portrayed with dark hair:
There’s all kinds of shenanigans between Charles and Henriette around secret treaties with France. Watch the show if you care. Charles wears a great dressing gown:
Henriette is sick and at the end of her trip starts being poisoned by one of her chambermaids. She says goodbye:
Henriette goes back to France where she’s dying; it’s obvious that her husband is responsible for her poisoning. (Note: the real Henriette did possibly, not for sure, die of poisoning, and her husband was suspected.)
Charles is SUPER SAD. His sister meant the world to him. We get to see Catherine’s purple gown now:
Louis XIV encourages Louise to return to England, as she’s caught Charles’s eye. She asks if she should spy for France, but Louis is vague.
Louise basically throws herself at Charles, wearing a grey/blue dress that’s a bit plain but has fab sleeves:
LOTS MORE POLITICS HAPPENS — ZZZZZ. England is at war with the Dutch, and William of Orange (I think?) shows up for various political talks about Catholicism/Protestantism.
Anne Hyde, the first wife of the future James II (younger brother of Charles, heir to the throne), dies. James is hot to marry Italian and Catholic Mary of Modena. Charles tries to talk him out of it, arguing that the English will never accept a Catholic king, but James is insistent (and has bad teeth). Anne died in 1671, so that helps date things.
Charles gets talked into enforcing laws against Catholics, causing various advisors to resign, but there’s nonetheless a break with the Earl of Shaftsbury (who is very pro-Protestant and pro-Parliament).
The Earl of Shaftsbury meets with Buckingham (the king’s best friend) and tries to talk him into joining a possible rebellion led by the Duke of Monmouth (Charles’s illegitimate, but Protestant, son).
Stay tuned for episode 4! Soon! I promise!
“She’s called her daughter, Henriette, to her side; Henriette is married to Louis XIV’s younger daughter” ummm…? Didn’t think same sex marriage was a thing back then.
Just what I was going to say lol
Fixed! Oops! Well, it would make things more interesting, wouldn’t it?
Oh, hell yes! There would probably be fewer stories of “friends” who never got married and lived for decades in the same house together.
I would swear that in those 2 period portraits, Henriette and Nell are wearing the same dress…
There was a rumour for years that Monsieur (as Louis’s brother was referred to) murdered Minette (Henriette), but it’s been denied by some historians. For those who enjoy the printed page for this period, I recommend Old Court Life In France, vols I & II and “The Affair of the Poisons” one by Frances Mossiker (and appallingly expensive) and the one by Anne Somerset (affordable and available)
Personally I’m skeptical that Henrietta was poisoned at all. The official cause of death after an autopsy was gastroenteritis which is perfect possible but her complaints of pain in the side sound like appendicitis.
I have a bit of a thing for Charles II. Sure he was a total man-slut but he seems to have treated the women in his life well, some better than they deserved (looking at you Barbara Villiers!). And he was a loyal, if not faithful husband to Catherine of Braganza. He had to tolerate his other women underfoot but she learned that she could absolutely count on him to be there when she needed him.
An interesting thing about Charles is he’d take a no. You’d have to put up with mournful puppy dog eyes and you can’t exactly avoid the King at court but he doesn’t seem to have put any pressure on Frances Stuart or to have held it against her when she married somebody else.
Compared to Henry VIII, Charles was a nice, reasonable guy, which seems to have been true, despite his sluttiness. (Mind you, compared to Henry VIII, most kings were pretty nice.) Casting Rufus was a good idea, too–usually is.
Although I’m glad Charles and Catherine got along with each other a year after their marriage, I still can’t over how much Charles was emotionally abusive to Catherine after Catherine threw a public fist upon learning Barbara was his mistress.
Totes agree. Forcing your new wife to accept your publicly acknowledged mistress as a lady-in-waiting – a role where she’d be helping you dress and undress – is scumbag husbanding.
Yes but he made up for it on later occasions, comforting her through her miscarriages, protecting her from anti-Catholics, refusing to divorce her for not giving him an heir.
It was a rough road but eventually he and Catherine reached a tolerable modus vivendi. Pepys wrote in his diary that the Queen had become a mistress, by which he apparently meant she was getting at least as much of Charles’ attentions as any of his other women. Which was certainly better than being ignored like poor Marie Therese in France.
The hot young thing that Barbara Castlemaine is bonking & giving Charles’ money to is John Churchill, future Duke of Marlborough etc etc. He was an all round sleazeball & kind of a gigolo in his youth.
Barbara’s last child, a daughter also named Barbara, was probably John Churchill’s child but Charles publicly acknowledged her despite private doubts. She was also claimed by Barbara Senior’s husband Roger Palmer, Earl of Castlemaine, who left her his fortune. Possibly both the King and the Earl felt sorry for the child.
Little Barbara would have an affair and an illegitimate child, taking after Mum, but it didn’t work out for her and she entered a convent of English nuns in France, as a penance, where she did very well becoming prioress.
I’m going to say that the menz’ costumes in this series got the full treatment, and the women’s all look like they were taken out of the Chorus of a big opera. I actually don’t mind this! It was a time before Beau Fucking Brummel broke men’s fashion and this show is all about the power politics between the men, and while that is a fairly typical plot, the way it was handled is more interesting.
Now be fair, Regency modes are very flattering to a manly figure! But Brummel did take all the color out of menswear, poor deprived creatures.
Are there any sources which actually show that Louis XIV loved extensive make-up? I don’t know even one painting which would speek for such a love for those things. In contrary I would suggest that he was very much a men… Is that typical for the British view on France? “L’Allée du Roi” did’nt reflected Louis in such a way.
well, it seems very well done, but it is just confirming for me that this is not an era in which I can find anyone I like or that doesn’t seem to suffer awfully (Henriette seems the most likable but she gets mistreated and possibly poisoned?). Also for me the women’s dog ear hair is a big no. But props to them for portraying it accurately.